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Friday, June 21, 2013

Humanities, Wealth, and Poverty

Humanities for the Wealthy / Labor for the Poor

                For some of us, the endless “crisis of the humanities” is mountain impossible.  Efforts to climb and conquer it fail.  Others deem the crisis to be no more than a challenge.  They adroitly climb and enjoy the spectacular view from the summit.  The difference between success and failure is not skill.  It is the possession of wealth needed to change the conditions for climbing and resolving crisis.

                When the Arts and Humanities Division at Harvard University noticed a drop in the number of students who elect to major and complete degrees in the humanities, it recognized an opportunity to examine reasons for crisis.  After a thorough survey of the humanities in Harvard College, the undergraduate sector, from the 1960s to the present, and a comparison with conditions at its peer institutions (Princeton and Yale), the Division issued three  reports in June 2013:  “Mapping the Future, “ “In Brief: The Teaching of the Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future, “ and “A View from the Mahindra Humanities Center.”  These reports are of interest for the intelligence that informs them and for the recommendations about a deeper investment in undergraduate teaching. Had similar reports about the crisis of the humanities been issued by the University of Mississippi or the University of Utah, they would probably have been accorded minimal notice.  But they came from the “magic” deep pockets of Harvard.  The public worship of origins and the virtues of wealth in the United States do make a difference.

                For these reasons, the language and rhetorical strategies of the three reports merit scrutiny. They actually say less that we can consider new or newsworthy than the contextual ambience promises.

Time and again we have heard the language used, for example, by the authors of “In Brief…” in Item V on recurrent binaries. Addressing the uncritically assumed difference between Great Books and Popular Culture, the writers assert that “We do not recognized the opposition, and instead feel that we should only teach works that we think are great.” The socioeconomic import of the pronoun “we” is chilling. The Harvard “we” reifies and essentializes the rightness of power as a matter of normality rather than as a matter of intention. We have the power to determine the strategic location of “opposition,” and we can use the tactic of only teaching “works that we think are great.”  The operative words here are we and great. We is contextually well-defined or delimited.  Great is contextually undefined; it is messy and mysterious. The linguistic boundaries evoked can segregate we from you and they.  Few of us need a book entitled Ideology for Dummies to get the message.

                The voices in the three reports wear Prada from Milan not from New York as they echo a few conclusions about the impoverished souls of today’s Harvard students from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987).  Once again, the flawed dynamics of democracy are blamed for intellectual poverty.  The blame is exquisitely masked in remarks about the integrative potential of the humanities  in “A View from the Mahindra Humanities Center,” the subaltern report written by Homi K. Bhabha.  Nevertheless, Bhabha’s minority utterances betray the hegemony of power as he proclaims:

The integrity of humanistic disciplines lies in their ability to integrate a wide variety of human experiences and articulate them as frameworks of scholarly knowledge.  It is for this reason that the humanities have an important pedagogical role to play within the university while appealing more generally to an informed public beyond the campus (1).  A segregative white flag waves in the breeze. The informed public actually needs a pedagogy that manufactures frameworks of utilitarian knowledge,  but that need stands remotely outside the purview of Harvard College in its desire to revitalize rigorous and critical teaching for its undergraduates.

                The three reports do bring the past of Eurocentric great books and the specter of wealth  into the present, providing rueful entertainments if we contrast how Harvard addressed the challenge of the humanities with how Dillard University succumbed to the crisis of the humanities within the past three years.  Like Harvard, Dillard recognized that the number of students who completed majors in the humanities (and the social sciences) was steadily declining.  Under the leadership of Marvalene Hughes, financially impoverished Dillard murdered its noteworthy tradition of the liberal arts and the humanities in a gamble that it would be more successful by serving a population of millennial students interested in STEM and mass communications.  Who wins?  Who loses?

 Dillard and its peers do not have the options Harvard can afford, and their yet unwritten reports for such accrediting agencies as SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools)  will likely articulate a pessimistic mapping of a future. Robust, mind-nurturing humanities in higher education will increasingly become the prerogative of wealth.  The poor, bereft of invigorating humanities instruction in classrooms, will perhaps be given the option of reading the 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics (1909) or the 54 volumes of the Great Books of the Western World (1952). They will be trained to content themselves with the pleasures of labor. Ah, humanity and humanities. Ah, America.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

June 21, 2013